Dawn and Steve Finnie aren’t like most people currently opening a brewery. That’s because Little Thistle Brewing Co., soon to open in Rochester, Minnesota, isn’t their first.
Following the elation of opening Grand Rounds Brewpub in 2015, Steve, co-owner, managing partner, and head brewer, and his wife Dawn, who lent a hand with the brewpub’s social media, recipe development, education, and quality control, quickly hit the nadir of their venture in craft beer when they made the difficult decision to walk away from a souring business relationship.
Now, a year into the planning and construction of Little Thistle Brewing Co., the couple is ready to jump back into the game, for better or worse.
It’s the beginning of August when we visit, and the Finnies are well on their way to realizing their dream brewery. A Scotch ale made with Bairds Malt, from near Steve’s hometown in Scotland, is ready to be served. A hazy IPA was brewed earlier in the day with help from Steve’s former brewing partner from Grand Rounds, Adam Fredericksen (who is currently in the process of opening his own brewery in Rochester, the Thesis Brewing Project).
Even with the milestones, the journey’s been difficult. Dawn explains that leaving Grand Rounds and opening Little Thistle left the family in debt.
“We had to start from scratch—money-wise, recipe-wise, business plan–wise,” she says.
The thought of failure still wakes Steve up at night.
“[It’s] terrifying, as in waking up at 3am and thinking, ‘What the hell have I done?’” Steve says. “And, ‘How am I going to get through the next day and get everything done?’ There’s certainly an element of risk. But we’ve come this far and overcome a ton of obstacles.”
“You can either crumble when you’re faced with adversity, or you can just suck it up and get past it,” Dawn adds. “And I think that’s what we chose to do. We’re here and we’re going to be okay.”
The taproom features many elements inspired by things the Finnies enjoy about other spaces. Every detail, down to the subway tile behind the bar, is something Steve has always wanted to include in his ideal brewery. Another must-have element was a game room. And not just tabletop and board games, but full-on arcade cabinets. Two 45-inch TVs and a 55-inch projector have been installed to broadcast sporting events like major soccer tournaments.
Little Thistle’s building is 5,200-square-feet and sits on a total of two acres. The property will include space for parking and a large deck, with plans for a green space complete with grass and trees. The brewery sits at the point where Cascade Creek Trail merges with Douglas Trail—a popular bike route connecting Rochester with Douglas and Pine Island.
The brewhouse of Little Thistle is the most robust brewing space in Rochester. It’s located in the back half of the long building, which was a truck-loading facility in a former life and boasted 22 loading docks, and houses a 10-barrel brewing system, two 20-barrel conical fermenters, and five 10-barrel conical fermenters. Hot and cold liquor tanks, a reverse-osmosis system (which enables Steve to tailor the water chemistry of each beer style), and a steam boiler round out the narrow space. All the tanks are viewable from the taproom.
Steve explains that the larger tanks make it possible for him to consistently brew lagers and flex his creative muscles, something he felt he couldn’t quite do with the equipment at Grand Rounds. “It’s a luxury and very nice to have,” Steve says. “This time around we designed a brewery that would allow us flexibility to make whatever beer we could want to make. […] We feel like we’re building something special in Rochester.”
The last year and a half of building Little Thistle has been exciting but also physically and emotionally taxing for the Finnies. But they compare their perseverance to Scotland’s national flower, the thistle.
“It’s a weed. It’s relentless. It grows anywhere. It continues to thrive despite multiple attempts to uproot it. And that—when I read that—that’s why we have to call it what it is,” Steve says of the brewery’s name. “It symbolizes our journey to get where we are.”
“It’s scary to translate what our vision is and what we want this to be, to execute it appropriately,” Dawn adds. “To have every person come in here and feel like they’re welcome and that this is a place they want to be at. We take personal responsibility for that. If people come in and don’t feel like that—it will hurt us.”
The drive the Finnies have to make Little Thistle work as a community hub—that brews great beer—is palpable.
“It’s been my only purpose in life to make this happen, because I didn’t give up a 15-year career to not do this,” says Steve, who worked at Mayo Clinic as a physical therapist until January 2015 when he left his job to become head brewer at Grand Rounds. “This means everything now. […] We’re on the brink of something here, and we’re extending ourselves beyond anything I’ve ever extended myself on. And physically, emotionally, financially—you name it, we’re all in. I’m so glad we did it.”
Brewer: Steve Finnie
Beer: Brave Woman Scottish Ale, Beautiful Day IPA, The Doug Lager, New Scotland NEIPA, and a yet-to-be-named Berliner Weisse with passionfruit and mango
Address: 2031 14th St. NW, Rochester, MN 55901
Hours: Tuesday‒Thursday, 3pm‒10pm; Friday and Saturday, 12pm‒11pm; Sunday, 12‒8pm
Grand Opening: August 24, 2018